Early on in my youth ministry career I was trained to do cultural exegesis. One of the foundational questions when consuming media is to ask yourself this question: "Is what I am watching Directive or Reflective?"
Back in the good old days, it was easy to write off most edgy programming as simply directive programming and then find ways to protect our kids from being lead astray by media that was overly sexualized and dangerous. This boycott mentality is deeply ingrained in the Christian psyche and all the old play books are coming out for the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.
In such short order there have been many things already written about this series. There is concern from physiologists, parents, schools and churches. The concerns are real, concerns that this show glorifies suicide and will make it more normative in our communities. (You can check out some of those posts, here, here, here, here, and here.) While must work with all our hearts to stop suicide and its glorification, we can not simply write off this series and condemn it. We must engage the content and culture and see what we can learn about the hidden lives of our students.
I think we should strongly consider that the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why is much more reflective than we think. Consider the possibility that this show doesn't glorify or dramatize the high school experience, but rather reflects it more accurately than any other program out there.
If this show gives us "out of touch" adults a glimpse into the lives of students, then we need to rethink everything we are doing in student ministry and get our heads in the game. This simply isn't the high school experience you remember. And, as an adult leader in their world, we must start where they are, not where we think they are or where we want them to be.
Here are my 13 reasons why youth workers must be at the top of their game.
1) Nothing is worse than suicide: Anyone who has been impacted by suicide knows of the devastating ripples that are caused when someone we know takes their own life. Death is the biggest offense to the unique beauty and value we have been given by God. Death crushes us at the deepest part of our beings. And when someone takes their own life, those left behind are devastated. As adults we must be aware that depression, anxiety, loneliness and isolation are at epidemic proportions and, suicide, unfortunately is an option. This means that we take nothing for granted, we keep our eyes aware of the warning signs, and get help to those who need it.
2) Have resources ready: There are so many resources available to help you. Everything from books and articles, to hotlines...but be on the ready. (Check out this book by Steve Gerali, and these web resources, here and here.) Who are your local therapists? Do you know the protocols for admitting students to the hospital? There is no overreaction. Looking like an idiot is the best option!
3) Bullying must be stopped: One of the awful realities of being an adult who works with students is that I think I have a pretty good grasp of what is going on in the lives of our students. But the truth is, so much bullying happens below the surface at a frequency our eyes and ears just can’t see. This means that by the time we are aware of it, the bullying is out of control and the damage has been done. If we don’t leverage all of our capital to stop it, to stand up for those weaker, we will will be considered a helpless adult. What makes that so awful is that we are then shut out any sort of real pain and hurt in our students lives because they have watched us not defend those being picked on. What if you miss it? What if you won't defend them? Stopping bullying must be more than a poster campaign. We must leverage our influence at all costs so all kids feel safe.
4) Don't look away: Shows like this make us want to look away or pretend it isn’t this bad. In the name of protecting our kids or not wanting them to "stumble" (which, by the way, makes absolutely zero sense to our students), we avert our eyes to the horrors and filth that is youth culture. But what if those horrors and filth are simply a daily reality for our kids. Quit looking away, quit pretending that these aren’t your kids, that they aren’t their issues. We must stare deep into the abyss, listen to students, care for them, actually acknowledge that their world exists. You don’t need to always be directive or protective. Rather, we must simply see them! And if we don’t consider their world, their joys, their horrors, then they will only allow us to see the veneer they have developed that allows them to move through our adult world the with as little friction as possible.
5) Their perception IS reality: This is a difficult reality for those of us ministry leaders. We want to teach them the ‘truth.” But in their world, there is no such thing as truth with a capital T. Everything is “their” truth. And you may hate this as a Christian who wants kids to know that Jesus is THE TRUTH, but this is their world. How they perceive the world, their relationships, their value, is their reality. A helpful question that frames how I talk to students, how I manage youth group or a conversation on a trip, how I teach, and how I debrief is, “How will this student remember this encounter, this trip, me, the church, in 2, 5, or even 10 years?” These questions change everything. Being right doesn’t matter. Rather, helping shape their perception to understand in the core of their being that they are loved by you, by Jesus and by the church is what we must run after.
6) Adults matter: Here is some good news. Adults do matter in the lives of students. All the studies show and most of the writing that the Fuller Youth Institute has produced over the last decade has all been around the need for adults to be in the lives of kids. 5 adults for every 1 kid helps them come to know, love, and serve Jesus their whole lives. It matters. But we can’t be proud that our offices are open, or that we extend grace to kids. One of the brutal parts of this series for me was that, almost, every kid in the show had parents and adults in their world who really did love them. We think that our kids know we love them, but that is not enough. We must “see” them and walk with them. As an "out of touch" adult, this is a mystery. However, I refuse to back away. I will be awkward and poke my nose into every situation I am aware of to communicate my love, God’s love, and their value. By God’s grace maybe they will share a deeper level of themselves with me.
7) We only get a tiny slice: For as much as we think we are with it, or see and care for kids, we must own the reality that we only get a small slice of their lives. Students are rapidly individuating, which means who they are has to naturally separate from you as parents, and even from us other adults in their life. They have to walk this road alone. It is normal and natural for our kids to pull away and to figure this stuff out on their own. We cant delude ourselves that our kids share everything with us. We get a slice. And since we only get a tiny slice, then we must take advantage of it and leverage it so that when they are hurting or in need, we are ready and available.
8) The slice we get is often shrouded: One more brutal reality about being an adult in the lives of students is this: more than only getting a slice of their life, the slice we do get is shrouded. Students live in a world that is so dangerous, that their every waking moment is about self preservation. Everyone is unsafe. Even adults. So, just know that, everything they tell you is a sliver of the truth. It is never the whole truth. Usually students just share enough of the picture to get us off their backs. I like the 10% rule. Whatever they share, the max truth they give you as a parent or concerned adult is 10%. This should scare us and cause us pause. But instead of mining for more truth, or worse, think we are getting the whole truth, we simply need to talk and express love and grace for the imagined 100% of their life. If we are horrified by the 10% then we immediately go into the unsafe category. They will never share it all with you, but by loving the rest of them, the hidden parts of them, they will know on a deeper level their value and worth.
9) There is little to no Christian influence in their world: Many of us are under the misguided assumption that our kids have Christian influence, morals, and values. And at worst, they are just rebelling agains the rules and regulations of “the man” and will eventually grow out of it. But the truth is our kids have ZERO Christian influence (outside of your home and their time at church) And be honest, most parents with teens are struggling for any time and connection with their teens, let alone doing a good job helping to shape their world through a Christian lens. Then there is the their connection to the church. How many hours do your kids spend in and around the church? Our most committed kids are lucky to get 2 hours a week, 2-3 times a month. We must wake up that there are zero Christians in their world who are shaping their worldview or morality. The Christian lens is totally absent. When you watch this show, ask yourself, “Where are the Christians?” They aren’t even there to be mocked. They are absent, and therefore so is the Judeo-Christian worldview, morality, and values.
10) This is what post christian ministry looks like: There is starting to be more and more written about Post Christian ministry. Post Christian ministry is ministry to this group of kids. Their world is very far from Christian values, morals, or a biblical worldview. There is little to zero Christian influence in their lives. They are as lost and lonely as lost and lonely can be. They do this all the while looking beautiful and going to good colleges. In the story of the prodigal son, they are the kids who live in the distant land and have no idea of the love, grace, mercy, safety, or provision that is found in the Father’s house. I have written about this topic, here, here, and here. I am hopeful smarter people will own this reality and write more so those of us in the trenches can be better equipped.
11) All the studies are right about abandonment and lengthening of adolescents...so now what? For 2 decades Christian thought leaders have been writing about student ministry and student culture. They have identified the reality that our students live in a totally separate world than the adults around them. Chap Clark has dedicated so many years and so many books helping us understand the world beneath. There is consensus that adolescents is lengthening and what young people are capable of in their psychological development is dramatically different than a generation ago. And we all see the rapid decrease of Christian influence in culture. These three reality are game changers. And while the titanic is sinking, we are still listening to music on the mezzanine. We all agree the landscape has changed. It might be time to actually begin to address see changes in our ministries.
12) Creating safe culture is our number one priority: I know many youth workers will disagree and our number one concern is making lifelong disciples. That sounds great. I, too, want to do that. But unless our ministries, and even more, the churches that house our ministry, or safe for everyone no matter their sex, gender, orientation, race, IQ, class, you name it, it isn't safe for anyone. Students can smell a mile away when certain people aren't welcome. And if “those” people aren't, they they figure at the core of their being they they aren't either. So their only option is to just shine you on. Unless our students feel emotionally safe, they will never take off their armor and expose their heart. And unless they expose their heart, it will be next to impossible for them to experience the love and grace that a God has to offer them. Our kids live on the island that looks like the book the Lord of the Flies. And we must be the adults who show up at the end and bring a new, or renewed culture with us.
13) WE HAVE TRUE HOPE!!: This is the good news of the Gospel and we have an opportunity to share it. We do not need to be people bound up by fear. Fear causes us to stop looking and listening. It paralyzes us and causes us to say and do really stupid things. The gospel of Jesus Christ has been proven to be good news in every culture, on every continent, in every time period. Our context is no different. But we must own that our cultural moment is significantly different from a generation ago. And in order to extend this hope, to be people of hope, we need the right language and culture to communicate it. Let us follow the example of Paul and be so in love with Jesus, so steeped in the Word, that we can be free to communicate the gospel in Berea, Athens, or to our post-Christian students, who are really wrestling with deep, deep issues and wounds.
Conclusion: We must be thinking proactively about how to do ministry in a post Christian context. Doing ministry with and for the students of 13 Reasons Why is not as simple as buying the latest resource or game on line or leveraging your inspiration from the latest conference. What is mostly being produced are reactions to the horrors of student culture or marketing to student culture. We can't simply buy curriculum to get through this cultural moment. We need proactive culture changers that can translate the gospel to this lost and broken world. This starts with taking seriously the world and culture our kids live in.
May God have mercy on us adults as we stumble through this complex and dangerous time. May we be people of hope and a respite for a world in desperate need of one.